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Meili xueshan (snow mountain) in northwestern Yunnan by the China/Tibet border was the initial inspiration for my trip to China. In a sense, I wanted to reimmerse myself in the kind of beauty and purity that I’d found hiking the Annapurnas in Nepal back in 2014. And I also wanted to get a glimpse into Tibetan culture without having to go into Tibet, which now requires a separate permit that stipulates group tour option only.

My original plan was to leave Kunming for Shangrila right after arriving from Vietnam, go to Meili, then trace my way from Shangrila back to Kunming overland. I’d booked my flight to Shangrila but had to ditch at the last minute. I fell horrendously sick right before the trip. Ran a high fever for a couple of days and actually had to take pills (first time that I could remember in my whole life.) By the time I boarded the plane to Kunming, my coughing fits were still unstoppable and chest splitting. I decided I’d better go by bus, making a couple of stops along the way to buy myself more time to recover. Those 5 extra days were exactly what I needed. But although my cough did get better, it proved to be way more persistent that I’d expected. My lungs couldn’t handle much exertion. Whenever I started to walk uphill, they’d send up loud protestations.

From Shangrila, it’s another bus to a town called Deqin. I was really excited because we would go over the famed Baima pass. But it wasn’t passable due to snow, and our driver had to detour to take the low road. The 5 hour ride turned into 9 hours, not too bad in itself but really draining when you weren’t expecting it. It was also on this road that I first experienced the notorious Chinese public toilet. I’m very far from being squeamish and have also lived in India where hygiene is not a well-understood concept, but this was easily the most revolting I ever had to put up with in my life. By a far margin. All the shitty stuff (not so figuratively) that people use the toilet for gets exponentially more disgusting as it lies visible and accumulates instead of getting flushed away or properly thrown into trash cans.

The next morning, I took a van to the trail head and was relieved to find 3 other Chinese who planned to spend the same amount of time in Yubeng – the village that sits at the foot of the Meili – and then walk out a different way. This second trail I was told was much less used and less defined so I wanted to tag along with others. I didn’t quite want to walk in with them, however, afraid that I’d hold them up and they’d be too scared listening to me trying to spit out my lungs. But no they were not gonna leave me and patiently waited at each turn. I almost teared up at their thoughtfulness and really wished I spoke Chinese. Thankfully it was only 10kms – not 20kms like someone had told me.

I hadn’t seen proper snow like this since my New England time, which was already 6 years ago. I’ve never been a fan, but it was indeed a refreshing sight that brought back much memory. Prayer flags kept us company along the whole way, a sure sign that we were indeed in Tibet land. And at the top, they hang thick and heavy across tree branches in all directions. We walked around laughing delighted like little kids at the colorful fluttering fabric.

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Meili xueshan, Yubeng, Yunnan, China, hiking

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There are quite a few rest stops along the way because this is an important pilgrimage route, but this time of the year everything is closed. My companions were lively among themselves, but didn’t seem as inclined to socialize with the few other hiking groups. If we had a break and saw that others were coming, we’d get up and start walking again. And one of them even picked up litter along the way. I was so impressed! They truly shined after we got to the guesthouse, where they took out a dozen kinds of Chinese snacks, dried green tea, aloe vera face masks, and then promptly went to get hot water for the three plastic basins. And thus I was ushered to put my smelly feet into the hot bath and got my face pampered while sipping hot tea. I don’t think I’ve ever ended a day of hiking with such style.

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The last night in Yubeng, my Chinese companions had a lively discussion on where I should go next. My plan was to bus over to Sichuan to check out Yading, but I was a bit worried that it’d be too cold and snowy. Here in Meili xueshan, we could only hike up to about 3500m elevation where the snow was too deep to continue on (about waist high). Yading is even higher at 4000m, its main hiking destination at ~4700m. And during our hike earlier in the day it’d snowed the whole time; I was reminded once again of why I’m at heart a beach bum sun lover.

A few options were brought up, but all involved going south like Xishuanbanna in Yunnan, and most favorably Yangshuo in Guangxi – a place so iconic among the Chinese that its landscape is printed on the 20 yuan note. Frankly they didn’t interest me much. Going south means getting close to Vietnam; I’m sure the scenery is pretty but I feared it’d not be novel enough for my eyes. After more discussion in broken Chinese and English with the help of translation app, I picked the one that sounded the most fun: Mohe, the northernmost town of China – and that properly freaked the girls out. They promptly responded: Forget everything we’ve said, just go to Sichuan like you’d wanted to. Not really sure what I wanted anymore, I decided to go sleep.

Our hike out to Ninong along the Lancang river was beautiful, sunny blue sky, and my heart said: Yes, I’m ready for more snow mountains. Yading it would be!

The back road from Yunnan to Sichuan is served by one daily bus connecting Shangrila and Xiangcheng. I had not seen such a desolate landscape in years. For the middle half of the road, we didn’t cross any villages or see any vehicles in either direction. There was one single family that lives 2.5 hours from the last village and 1 hour till the next. I wonder if it’s much more lively during the summer.

Sichuan, Yunnan, backroad, China, bus, winter, Shangrila, Xiangcheng, Daocheng

Sichuan, Yunnan, backroad, China, bus, winter, Shangrila, Xiangcheng, Daocheng

Sichuan, Yunnan, backroad, China, bus, winter, Shangrila, Xiangcheng, Daocheng

Xiangcheng to Daocheng – the departure town for Yading – was another 2.5 hours by shared van. I actually bumped into a guy who just got back from Yading at the Xiangcheng bus station who told me not to go because it was too much snow and ice. But I went ahead and jumped into the van anyway. It started to snow, and soon was a white out.

Sichuan, Xiangcheng, Daocheng, winter, snow

Luckily the sun came out shining bright again the next day. It was off-season in Yading. Ticket was half price. And not too many people were headed in. All good for a thrifty crowd-hater like myself. A driver told me in the summer there are 8000 visitors per day and buses and electric cars run back and forth all day. Looking at all the big tour buses lying idle in the parking lot behind the ticket office, I totally believed it. But for us (me and 4 other from the same guesthouse in Daocheng), we only had to share the whole park with another 20 visitors or so. The not so convenient thing was that the buses only ran 2 or 3 times a day, depending on demand. If you miss the last bus, then keep walking. (From the park entrance to Yading village where you can spend the night is 6kms, and from the village back to the ticket office is +30kms. No outside vehicles are allowed past the ticket office.)

Sichuan, Daocheng, Yading, Aden, winter

The main attractions in Yading are the 3 snow peaks (Chenresig, Jampayang, and Chenadorje – believed by Tibetans as emanations of the 3 Boddhisatvas) and the 3 lakes (Pearl Lake, Milk Lake, and 5 Color Lake). Pearl Lake is easily accessible year round, but to Milk Lake and 5 Color Lake is a 6 miles walk round trip. I was doubtful I could even reach those 2 and was so sure I would miss the last bus and not be back till after dark. We headed out late and I lost much time because everyone in the park from visitors to staff once they heard of where I wanted to go held me up to explain why I should not. One guy spent a solid 15 minutes saying I didn’t know what; he was so into it he probably forgot I didn’t understand but a few basic Chinese words like “not safe” and “not good”. I have to admit I was a bit annoyed, but still appreciated their concern just the same. The only person that thought I was completely sane was the young Tibetan running the guesthouse in Yading village. But he did tell me to absolutely not go past the lakes as there would be no trails visible this time of the year.

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, Pearl Lake, Zhenzhuhai, Chenresig, Xiannairi, winter

Yet for all those forewarnings, the hike turned out to be a breeze. I kept wondering “is it gonna get tough soon?” the whole way till I suddenly got to the sign post that announces my destination. Quite anti-climatic. It was icy in parts, and I had to take more pauses due to the altitude, but overall really not bad, and surprisingly little snow left on the ground.

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, winter, prayer flags

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, hiking, winter, Milk Lake, Five Color Lake, Wusehai, Niunaihai

I was up above Wusehai at 2pm (started walking at 11:30am). 5 Color lake was now only 1 color, and Niunaihai (Milk Lake) was also entirely under snow. I could only imagine how breathtaking their colors would be later in the summer and fall.

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, winter, Milk Lake, Five Color Lake, Wusehai, Niunaihai, Chanadorje, Xiaruoduoji, Chenresig, Xiannairi, hiking

I was admiring all the panorama with not a soul around when it suddenly dawned on me that if I hurried, I could actually catch the last bus and go back all the way to Daocheng. We’d stayed one night in Yading. And normally I wouldn’t have minded another night in that quiet village, but there was no running water due to frozen pipe and I wasn’t too fond of carrying buckets to flush down the toilet. And a hot shower at the end of the day sounded irresistible. So I started jogging down. I did make it just in time. We said goodbye to Yading as heavy clouds rolled in and felt lucky for having 2 beautiful days in the mountains. But our luck didn’t last all the way. The power was out in Daocheng and by the time it went back, I was already ready for bed.

Or: How I repeatedly disregarded my hunch and ended up paying dearly for it.

Woke at 6:30am. The rain had started the night before and I had thought I’d call the whole thing off if it was still coming down in the morning. But instead, I got dressed, went out in the dark, and bought a bus ticket.

Got off at Wannian temple and bam, Chinese tour groups and loud speakers! Maybe it wasn’t too bad compared to normal but to me it was shocking because I’d spent the past couple of weeks in remote quiet places. Thought about turning around. But then went ahead to get entrance ticket. 185 yuan, so freaking expensive.

Most tourists take the cable car up to the temple proper; i was pretty much by myself walking. (The temple was so noisy I didn’t even go in.) Passed a mom and daughter team, daughter already in middle age and mom a granny; I was so impressed. Crossed a young guy who seemed to want to walk with me but I ditched him. Big mistake. Why I ditched him I have no idea. He seemed nice enough. I was just in a cross mood. It was raining the whole time, sometimes fast and hard. My pants were wet, my shoes soaked. I took my socks off to wring out the water when I stopped for lunch and had to put them back on frigid after. I seriously considered just saying f*** it and turning around. But I pressed on. My feet were numb for an hour.

Sichuan, Emeishan, winter, hiking

So many times on the way, I paused and said out loud to no one: “what the hell, you’re crazy!” And in my head I was thinking: “did your parents raise you all those years to do this, taking a miserable hike in the cold wet rain and not even being able to see anything past 30 ft?” It was incredible misty and foggy. Finally climbed to the highest temple and then it started going down for a bit. This was getting slightly better.

But no! The monkeys appeared. There had been so many signs along the way: “Aggressive monkeys! Don’t joke them!” and I’d thought: No of course I don’t engage with wild animals; I’m not even interested a tiny bit in monkeys having seen too many of them in real life… Let’s say those signs were a serious understatement. I will never forget the leader’s mean face with his teeth out. He jumped right on my backpack and stripped the rain cover off and started gnawing at the top part. Then he very smoothly unzipped the side pockets but found no food so back to gnawing again. I got my pack off because he was weighing it down, which was a big mistake in hindsight. Should have just ran downhill with it (and with the monkey, but maybe he’d have bitten my neck off). I tried to tell the gang I’d give them all my food, and even attempted to unzip the top part for them so they’d stop tearing it. Of course they thought I was getting the bag back and started biting my legs. Hard! And from behind! Those sneaky thugs! Things were falling out and they got hold of my precious sleeping bag, and wanted to carry both the bag and the pack (and in it my passport) away, which really pissed me off. I started screaming, snatching both back and hitting the meanest one with the sleeping bag (wanted to find a stick but didn’t see any, and sleeping bag definitely doesn’t even hurt an ant). More bites ensued.

At this point I was shrieking so hard, someone finally heard. (There were quite a few people coming down after but no one was passing by at that point, such was my luck!) He came over, my savior!!!! He shooed the monkeys away and I was just standing there shaking and couldn’t stop crying. He kept saying “meishi meishi” to calm me down. And I was choking over tears to utter a few words asking him to give me a minute, and explaining to him that I don’t speak Chinese. He gathered my bag and the few essential things that were scattered around, and asked me to walk down a little further to a couple of small shops where I could rest (and where he came from). I was still crying the whole time. The monkey teeth tore my pants and sank quite deep in my flesh and blood was soaking out. I was completely shaken. The first time in my adult life, crying out of fear and helplessness.

I composed myself a little after sitting down. They cleaned my multiple wounds with alcohol (6 were bleeding and the others were more shallow and had dried up), gave me a place to change into drier clothes, and also a bucket of coal to warm myself and dry my shoes. Tears were still rolling down my cheek but I wasn’t choking up anymore. At this point I thought I could just walk down the mountain myself, but I’d need someone to accompany me past my tormentors. Of course I couldn’t say all that in Chinese (didn’t even know the word for monkey) so i decided to reach out to Kaylee for help. Girl is so golden. She was in Shangrila and after learning of my plight, made a series of calls to see what my options were and what could be done. All thanks to her, an assistance guy was dispatched to my place to help me get back to the foot of mountain. 14 freaking kms. At least most of it on the descent; instead of another 10 kms uphill. (None of the hikers that came after even saw monkeys. Make me wonder if they actually spied and seeing that I was alone and without stick, decided to ambush me.)

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That walk back might have been the best thing of the day. I was thinking: damn this is the most romantic I’ve ever done, could be straight out of a Korean drama, a guy and a girl walking arm in arm in the rain under un umbrella in the forest. I’m sure my companions didn’t find it that way. The first guy looks 19 and he was panting way too hard and sweating quite a bit, having to carry my (light) pack and supporting me on one side. I almost didn’t believe I’d climbed up all those stairs in the first place. They were just never ending. (And now I can’t believe I made it back down.) A couple of locals offered to carry for 800 yuan but I declined of course.

Got a free cable ride at the end. Then driven to a clinic where they cleaned the wounds good (and damn it hurt), bandaged them up, and gave me 2 rabies shots. They even gave me money for the extra shots I’d need to get in Vietnam. The staff who drove me to the clinic left to go home before I was all done. I thought that meant it’d be easy to get back to hotel but I was wrong. After getting a walking stick and a goodbye wave from the doctor, I was on my way. Hobbling along a dusty road near lots of construction filled with trucks and vans, bamboo stick in one hand, torn bag in back, sleeping bag dangling on the side, and a super miserable face, I must have been such a sight. People gave me some good long looks. That was really the least of my concern then. I thought the doc had said I could find lots of cars to get back once I got to the big road, but there was no taxi in sight. Quite a few big buses but there was no way i could just flag them down and tell them what i needed and climbed those steep steps. Stopped a few guys to ask to borrow their phones to make a phone call back to my hotel, but they just laughed and told me to use my own. Tried to say my phone wasn’t working (ran out of money from all the calls up on the mountain) to no avail. They just walked away. So here’s what to remember, if you can’t help someone in need, at least don’t laugh in their face. That’s bad manner. It turned out ok in the end though, that they left me helpless. A moment later, I saw a police station and went in. They let me use the phone, then drove me back all the way, and even checked to make sure I was back in proper hands. Thank you Emeishan police! And really Emei, you should stop pasting those cheerful monkey faces on all kinds of signs and banners. The staff took photos of my wounds, I hope you’ll put those up on warning signs instead.

I lay silently on the hotel dorm bed, with a sheet pulled over my head to cover my tear-stricken face. You and the other 2 girls that occupied the rest of the beds in the room talked lively with each other in Chinese. Of course I couldn’t understand, and I really did not care to. I didn’t even say hi when you checked in,  pretending to be sleeping at 4pm.

You must have taken pity on me. I never asked. But when I finally got up and had some energy to move around the next morning, you asked if I wanted to go somewhere because you could drop me off with the electric scooter you’d rented, and you even invited me to tour the peninsula with you. I said yes.

You recently graduated from an engineering school in Hangzhou, while I’ve been working for a few years already, and you’d still not let me split the bike rental with you. We talked about life for you in China and for me in Vietnam, about salary and consumption and real estate market, about family and obligations. You told me to go home from university you’d have to take a 50 hour train or a 7 hour plane ride; I almost couldn’t comprehend that distance within a single country. You broke off the contract of a good job in Beijing and had to pay a hefty fine because you wanted to take another job in Chengdu where apartments are much cheaper and with your salary maybe you can buy your own place within 3 years so your widowed mom can come visit you a few months of the year. You studied English really hard from 2002 till 2008, when you started university. You’re in no way fluent but your English is very good for an engineering student that has never been to an English speaking country. And you use such American phrases like “you freak me out” or “watch out” that’s from watching American movies. I realized you’re the first Chinese that I’ve talked with in depth that’s not one of the study abroad crowd. You’re in a way so typically Chinese and at the same time do lots of things that I’d not expect from a mainlander. I know it’s such a silly thing to say; the country has a billion people after all.

We ate noodle, rode scooter, drank sugar cane juice, went to the night market and played darts. Your simple way moved me. You’re one of those kindhearted people that I might never see again but will think of often with warm wishes from the bottom of my heart. I hope you’ll get to travel more, save enough to buy an apartment soon, maybe get a gf. I’ve been touched so many generous people all these years, and I always tell myself that I need to be kinder to others to pay it forward. And yet I’m still cold and distant and standoffish. This needs to change. I hope I can be so unassumingly graceful like you.

Jialeshui beach, Manzhou, Kenting, Taiwan

Longpan park, Kenting, Taiwan, East CoastKenting, east coast, Taiwan

Working was the best decision I made. I discovered that I’m actually pretty good at serving people drinks and trying my best to make sure they have a good time. I made enough to cover my costs, while practically getting free Spanish lessons on the job. My boss insisted on speaking Spanish since we were in Peru after all, and his gf who worked the cashier didn’t speak any English, and everyone inside and outside the bar was curious where this foreign chinita came from and why she was working in a bar. I had a teach yourself Spanish book that I looked at in the morning to memorize a few phrases to practice that day, and carried around a pocket dictionary so people could point new words out to me. I was inundated with questions. Every day I would try to answer a couple more than the day before, then stopped, grinned, and said “well that’s all my Spanish for now.” They all  laughed and kept on firing Spanish at me.

Once or twice a week, I’d spend the afternoon baking for a small vegetarian restaurant. The range of ingredients were limited, and there was only one oven in the whole neighborhood where folks paid to bake their cuy (guinea pigs) and other local specialties. The heat distribution was uneven, made worse by the constant opening and closing of the oven door so honestly the cakes never quite came out the way I expected. But people didn’t seem to be very picky when it came to chocolate.

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oven house, bakery, Cusco

my cake getting ready to join guinea pigs

public oven house, bakery, San Blas, Cusco

If I didn’t have to bake, I would walk down to Plaza de Armas after lunch and sit on the cathedral stairs to soak in the warm sun. If I had some money I would stroll to the little Cafe Dos x 3 owned by a discreet elderly man who made the best espresso and lemon tart. Some days I walked a few minutes beyond to the market and eat at the only spicy beef potato stall in the whole eateries area and then get a mixed juice on the way out. Further still is the flea market where everything was 3 soles a piece and I’d get them discounted at 2.50 soles because no Peruvians would look twice at the colorful kitschy pants and jackets that I loved. Walking home as the sun went down and the temperature dropped rapidly, I would sniff around to locate the grilled beef heart skewers anticuchos lady who always fired up a cloud of smoke and attracted a dedicated crowd. The other one that I’d be on the look out for but sometimes still missed because hers was a much quieter affair was the emoliente lady, mixing sweet herbal drinks of pollen, honey, linseed, barley, alfalfa, horsetail, cat’s claw, and half a dozen of I don’t know what. It seems like a cure all to the locals. The only thing I was sure of was that nothing tastier could warm my belly better in the cold night.

catheral, Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru

emoliente, vendor, Cusco, Peru

emoliente lady

But best of all, I met an incredible bunch, lively hippie travelers/wanderers with hearts of gold that introduced me to a lifestyle that contrasted both to my conservative Vietnamese upbringing and my New England bourgeois/upper-class education.  The timing was perfect for that kind of carefree carpe diem: I was old enough to enjoy it fully, and young enough to not have to worry about any long-term consequences. We worked the nights in bars and restaurants as servers, cooks, musicians, got off our shifts and went dancing in empty after-hour clubs till dawn. On calmer nights, we would congregate in some small bar and close the door and talk stories while the guys jammed away. Or drifted to small shoddy dives to share 10-soles pitches of te macho (rum and tea). And when the night started to lose its darkness, we would trudge home, climbing up stairs after stairs although our legs were already numb from standing 10-12 hours, because we didn’t want to spend 2.5 soles for a 10 minute taxi ride. Some days too exhausted, we would rest at the cathedral, huddling up at the corner of the main gate, waiting for the first vendors to buy tamales or roasted pork if it was a Sunday to gain enough strength to make it back to our quarters. So little money, and always so much fun.

Cusco streets at night

Cusco, Peru, cheap hamburger stand

our hamburguesa mamita who sold the best burgers between 2-4am for 2 soles

Cusco, San Blas

Cusco summer 2009,

The funny thing about Cusco is that I never intended to be there. Not knowing a thing about Latin America, I still knew that it’s the tourist mecca of the region, and I wanted an authentic Peru experience. And yet, I went there as a stop for Qoyllur Rit’i, came back, and stayed. I was far from being the only one that got suck into this navel of the universe (Qosqo’s meaning in Quechoa). If anything, I was among those that left relatively quickly to go back to other worldly commitments.

Cusco, Peru, red brick tile roofs

view from my room balcony

I remember Cusco days and the friends I made there often and fondly, speaking of them with a wide smile on my face. Yet it was not at all rosy in the beginning. I cried every day during the first two weeks because I was shocked at the every-minute machismo. Men who think it’s alright to make repeated advances anywhere anytime, even when I told them “no, I don’t want to go out with you or kiss you, and i just told you that earlier this morning and haven’t changed my mind in the past couple of hours.” It was beyond frustration because sometimes I wanted to snap and lash out to let them know that I’d had more than enough and why what they were doing wasn’t acceptable, but I knew few phrases of Spanish and their English wasn’t very good. Oh, and by the way, I hated being called chinita.

I went to the few Irish bars around the central plaza de armas to look for work because the tip was reputedly good, but they didn’t have any positions. Wandering from bars to bars at the suggestion of their staff, I ended up in a dingy cavern. The boss agreed to take me almost immediately even though most of his customers were Spanish speakers and my Spanish wasn’t enough to last 30 seconds. He even asked me to come back to work that same night, which made me thoroughly uneasy, so I told him I could only start from the next night because I wanted to spend time with a friend before she had to leave. That friend was Sara; I brought her that night to the bar so that she could vouch for me. She judged that 7 Angelitos wasn’t such a seedy place after all. I found a room 15 minutes walk away in the same neighborhood, San Blas, and that’s how this barrio full of steep staircases became my home for the next few months.

Plaza de San Blas, Cusco, peru

looking up from Plaza de San Blas

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Every day before we opened, I had to walk around – usually down in Plaza de Armas because we were already quite known in San Blas – and hand leaflets to passers-by. It was up to that point the most embarrassing thing I had ever done in my life. I’d been to plenty places where everyone tried to make you take something, and that’s downright annoying. So I made a point to never insist. Still I had to smile and greet and talk to everyone, even if they looked downright hostile and I could clearly see myself reflected in their eyes as a big nuisance or worse. And I had to carry it out while parroting the few phrases in Spanish that I could barely muster: Tenemos musica en vivo todas las noches, y dos veces de happy hour. We have live music every night, and happy hours twice. Aqui tiene nuestro programa de la semana. Here is our program for the week. The skin on my face grew incredibly thick.

In Quechoa, Qoyllur Rit’i means snow star and the festival is said to originally celebrate the turning of seasons. Today the story often told about Qoyllur Rit’i is that of the miracle of Christ, a perfect example of syncretism not only in Latin America but around the world where Catholicism has so successfully appropriated local traditions and beliefs and turned them Christian. The story goes: an indigenous herder boy, lonely in the mountains where he works, once meets a mestizo (mixed) boy of his age and they quickly become good friends. The herder boy is grateful for company, and also happy because his flock keeps growing. His dad, satisfied, decides to let him to go Cusco and buy new clothes. The boy also wants buy new ones for his mestizo friend, who has been wearing the same outfit day after day. So he takes a sample from his friend’s clothes and goes around Cusco asking to buy more. None of the stores has any, and one finally informs him that it is used exclusively for the bishop. The boy’s quest gets to the ears of the bishop, who concludes that someone must have stolen the fabric from his stock. He sends out troops to the mountain to capture the mestizo boy. The troops find the boy, but the moment they charge forward, he radiates intensely to blind them and disappears. The herder boy, thinking that his friend has been harmed, becomes so stricken that he dies and is buried under a rock on that spot.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping, indigenous, church

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping,

Viva Cristo-Rey rock

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, camping,

lighting candles along church wall

 

A church was built to house the burial rock upon which was etched miraculously the image of Christ (not very credible to my faithless eyes). Pilgrims line up to pay homage, and the ground in front of the church is also the main stage that all dance groups rotate through. The procession is never ending. I am simply amazed at the strength that faith gives people to carry out such feats: whether it is to dance non-stop for days, or to carve temples out from rock mountains.

There are quite a few different groups in very unique attires performing different types of dances. Stand out the most are the Ukuku in bear costumes using their whips to keep the crowd in order. They dance with their whips too, engaged in lashing battles. My understanding is that sometimes it’s a young guy getting lashed to the point of bleeding as a form of initiation into this group of powerful mythical half-man half-bear. In front of God’s eyes, he proves his strength and worth. Other groups that have very distinctive and colorful costumes include the Ch’unchu wearing feather headdresses which embody their indigenous ancestry, and the Qhapag qolla carrying intricately embroidered boards and llama skins on their back, representing the mestizo merchants.

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, Ukuku, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Ukuku whip dance

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, Qhapaq qulla, dance, indigenous, whip dance

Qhapaq Qolla

 

Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance   Qoyllur Rit'i, Peru, Sinakara valley, festival, dance, indigenous, whip dance

I was having the best and worst time of my life. On the one hand, I’d never been to a grander festival, out in the middle of the mountains to boost. There was always more dances to watch, more stories to listen to. On the other hand, I had the most severe pain on my back; it felt like my lungs had collapsed and I could hardly breath. I couldn’t walk much, and only very slowly. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache and a sore body, and wondered if I’d make it to the next morning. Inexperienced, I thought it was because of the cold and the noise and didn’t realize much later that they were all classic signs of altitude sickness. I didn’t know we were at 4700m. Luckily, it didn’t turn much worse. It’s hard to believe but the majority of the pilgrims don’t sleep in tents but outside under tarps and plastic sheets in below freezing temperature; many of them don’t wear shoes.

On the last night, the Ukuku leaders from each community climb Apu Sinakara – one of the sacred mountains worshipped as gods – in darkness to reach the summit at first light, where they chop off a block of ice to bring back to their people. Its pure water dispels all troubles and sickness, preparing the community for a new cycle of life. However, some groups now summit without carrying any ice back. Climate change and the ever growing numbers of pilgrims mean that the ice is not as abundant now as it once was.

Here it is believed that if you walk and pay homage to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i three times, preferably in a row, your wish will be granted. I made a wish then, and still have two more times to complete.

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